Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 19441956
by Tony Judt
University of California Press, 348 pp., $30.00
This excellent book has been given an oddly inappropriate title. “Past imperfect,” in its literal meaning as a grammatical term, distinguishes a particular tense of the French verb from the “past definite” and the “pluperfect.” Here it is being applied metaphorically to a certain historical time span. But history is different from grammar; since all historical periods, whatever their virtues, have invariably been defective in some respect or other, there is no sure point of comparison, no perfection, to give meaning to the metaphor. Besides, the subject the author is dealing with—the strangely uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union of a majority of French intellectuals in the aftermath of the Second World War—was not a mere lapse from perfection; it was a strong, collective psychosis, an aggressive moral blindness, and so the joky, punning title is rather out of keeping with the seriousness of the theme.
After this initial quibble, I have nothing but praise for Professor Judt’s rigorous analysis, which has helped me better to understand a phenomenon of which I had some direct experience. I worked in Paris for a time after the war, predominantly with intellectuals, and I was struck by the highly charged, almost hysterical pro-Communist atmosphere, so different from the convivial left-wingism of the Front Populaire, which I had known as a student in prewar days. For the only time in my life, I had the feeling of living in an incipiently totalitarian situation, where people had to be circumspect about expressing anti-Communist opinions. As a foreigner, I was under no constraint, but I could see some of my French colleagues maneuvering carefully in case there should be a takeover.
It was a particularly unpleasant experience to attend the so-called Congrès de la Paix of 1948, a shamefully demagogic affair, orchestrated like a Soviet demonstration (which indeed it was), and distinguished by the incongruously Biblical symbol of the dove, contributed by Picasso, and the platform ranting of the poet Louis Aragon, the worst type of French Stalinist. But the hysteria also had its lighter side. A very elegant woman friend, who, following the fashion, had joined the Communist Party, once invited me to accompany her to a meeting of her local cellule. There, perched like a bird of paradise among earnest proletarian sparrows, she joined in the heated denunciation of the Marshall Plan as an instrument of American economic imperialism; then, at a certain point, she handed round a gold cigarette case filled with American cigarettes, which the comrades accepted without demur.
This was an example of what Eugène Ionesco aptly described as “Le vision progressiste” (progressive mink, i.e., radical chic), a short-lived craze of no great importance. But it was also the silly fringe of a serious moral distortion within the French intelligentsia which lasted for more than a decade, and was all the stronger because of the closed, hot-house atmosphere of Paris where, as Judt says, intellectuals paid more attention to their internal debate than to the external world …